Cultivating a gaze

In a previous blog I wrote about the difficulties of using ‘cultural capital’ as a means of selecting curriculum content. Essentially, I hoped to demonstrate that such an approach may, unconsciously or otherwise, venerate particular knowledge and practices solely on the basis of where they come from, and this can be problematic. In attempting to teach ‘cultural capital’ it may be that such highly valued knowledge is held to be so only because it represents the knowledge and practices of particular social classes, rather than because of the knowledge itself. Such a stance privileges the social origins of knowledge, in particular a social class, rather than its own characteristics.

As an alternative I offered Michael Young’s theory of ‘powerful knowledge’ as a means of exploring how the proprieties of knowledge itself might be help us to redraw the relationship between power and knowledge, so that what we teach does not simply reflect the ‘knowledge of the powerful’ but we select knowledge that is itself ‘powerful’ because it allows us to think in new ways and to generalize beyond the immediate context. Such knowledge is likely to be conceptual, meaning we can apply it to new and imagined contexts. For example, it allows us to pose and address meaningful ‘what if’ questions.

Young’s work is helpful because it gives us a means of analysing the characteristics of knowledge and its relation with other knowledge (its epistemic relations). However, does this mean we should ignore the social origins of knowledge? No. Inherent in Young’s work is a recognition that knowledge comes from a particular time/place/person etc. What he helps us to do is to look beyond that origin, not pretend it does not exist.

So, knowledge is both social and real. It reflects aspects of the world that exists in our minds, as well as that which exists independently of us. So perhaps the question is not whether it is one or the other; a better question might be ‘what is the relative importance of these dimensions’?

For me, the problem with cultural capital as a curriculum driver is not that it relates to the social origins of knowledge per se but that it might lead some people to the conclusion that social class is the only aspect of knowledge that confers its legitimacy. This is problematic. Firstly, it does not necessarily require us to consider the knowledge itself. This is why I think powerful knowledge is a useful concept. Secondly, what of other aspects of the social origins of knowledge? How else might this exist? What other forms might it take?

Karl Maton’s Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) has been a game changer in developing my understanding of the underlying organizing principles of knowledge. While the theory can be complex, Maton’s advice to “only use as much theory as you need” is a welcome reminder that LCT is by design a practical theory which, even at its most simple, readily sheds light on questions about knowledge. LCT provides the means of analyzing knowledge both in relation to other knowledge (epistemic relations) and those who know (social relations). The title of his book, ‘Knowledge and Knowers’, sums it up pretty succinctly.

The more you dig into LCT the more you find. Maton’s work on ‘gazes’, which builds on Bernstein’s concept, strikes me as particularly helpful in moving on the recent debate about cultural capital into a much more helpful space.

A cultivated gaze
According to Maton, in educational discourse there is always a hierarchy somewhere. Bernstein tells us that in some fields this ‘verticality’ exists through knowledge which is structured hierarchically: one thing builds on another. Maths is a good example. However, not all fields work this way. For example, progress in the arts can work differently – one thing does not necessarily build on another in the same way. So what is the basis of hierarchization in such horizontally structured fields? How does knowledge build? How does someone get better?

Maton argues in some fields the hierarchy is determined less by the knowledge structure and more by a knower structure. Essentially this means that some fields are characterized by developing a particular sort of knower, someone with a particular ‘gaze’. “One could,” Maton argues, “just as well talk of ‘ear, ‘taste’, ‘touch’, ‘feel’ and so forth.” You can begin to see why this thinking might be important in the arts, where the development of such sensitivities might be considered essential.

So, what sort of ‘gazes’ might there be? Maton outlines 4 types:

  • Trained gaze
  • Cultivated gaze
  • Social gaze
  • Born gaze

The ‘cultivated gaze’ is particularly interesting. Maton says, “the cultivated gaze is based on the belief that knowers are not born but made through the re-formation of their dispositions.” In explaining this he draws on Robert Hughes’ notion of the ‘invisible tribunal’:

“Every writer carries in his or her mind an invisible tribunal of dead writers, whose appointment is an imaginative act and not merely a browbeaten response to some notion of authority. This tribunal sits in judgement one our own work. We intuit standards from it…If the tribunal weren’t there, every first draft would be a final manuscript.” (Robert Hughes)

Maton describes this as a ‘mental library’ built through exposure to the evolving canon in which knowers are immersed. He concludes that in fields such as the arts this notion of a ‘cultivated gaze’ is the knower-based equivalent of the specialized knowledge-based hierarchy of fields such as science. What is important is to understand is that such a gaze is ‘teachable’; it is not dependent, as some other gazes are, on membership of a particular social group or class. In this way it is potentially inclusive.

What Ofsted really meant?
It is my conjecture that this is perhaps what Ofsted really meant in its use of the term ‘cultural capital’. I suspect the inspectorate was advocating an approach to knowledge building that recognizes that particular tastes and dispositions can be cultivated in pupils by immersing them in a broad range of cultural works and experiences. Such understanding legitimizes them as knowers within the field, allowing them to participate in its dialogue and debates.

One hopes this cultivated gaze would, therefore, increase the potential to widen access for pupils to other social groups, without being ignorant to the reality that social hierarchies are established on more than education alone. It is an optimistic stance, but not naïve.

Using the term cultural capital carried with it baggage which implied the roots of progression were based in social class. Viewing progress in fields such as the arts (and humanities?) as being centered on the cultivation of a gaze moves us on from this and in doing so it provides a more inclusive way forward.

This is not some sort of relativist argument that says ‘anything goes’. Actors within the field determine what is considered the legitimate content of the canon. The existence of a cultivated gaze inherently assumes some things – the canon – are more valuable than others. But such a perspective also creates room in the curriculum for exposure to a broad range of cultural works, neither structured or limited by social class.

This points to the way ahead: as learners within the field acquire the cultivated gaze, new and different cultural works can become part of the invisible tribunal and as such integrate these within the dispositions of the ideal knower. The canon can evolve. It is not static.

For my money the notion of a cultivated gaze is more helpful to curriculum planners than cultural capital.

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